FORWARD OPERATING BASE LAGMAN, Afghanistan - Throughout Afghanistan, platoons of male soldiers from the Afghan and American forces conduct daily patrols. Over the course of the patrols there always exists the possibility of encountering women, given they make up nearly half the population of Afghanistan. The male soldiers are prohibited from looking at or talking to these women due to Afghan cultural norms which disallow as much. So in order to engage the female populace the American Army has established female engagement teams.
FET is a program that was started by the U.S. Marines Corps and has been around for nearly a decade. It is comprised of volunteer female members of appropriate rank, experience and maturity to develop trust-based and enduring relationships with the Afghan women they encounter on patrols. Having such a team at its disposal has given American forces an added tool in reaching out to the Afghan population in advance of the scheduled troop reduction in 2014.
Two such soldiers from Battle Company, 5th Battalion 20th Infantry Regiment, Task Force 1-14 Cavalry Regiment located at Forward Operating Base Sweeney in southeast Afghanistan, explained what FET means to them and why they volunteer to work outside their normal military occupational specialties.
"I wanted to make a difference," said Pfc. Jacqueline Buschman. "I wanted to get out and see what the Afghan people were living like [and] help out in any way I could."
"I volunteered because I heard about the culture and I wanted to make a difference in the women's lives," Spc. Heather Ray, another FET team member, added.
Ray goes on to explain how the women in a village, though not often seen by outsiders, have considerable influence on their husbands, children and their community as a whole. It's Ray and Buschman's hope that by sitting down and talking with these women that they will be able to encourage the wives to influence their husbands to stay clear of insurgent affairs and focus instead on bettering their families and their villages.
"By just sitting down and talking with them [we're] showing them ... that we do care and that we're here to help them," said Buschman.
Their concern is not solely limited to the female populace. Battle Company's FET will often reach out to the children in a village as well. It gives them and their mothers a break, however brief, explained Buschman.
"One day we sat down and did coloring books with them. Some of them knew what it was. Others had no idea," Buschman added.
When asked if they felt they were making a difference, Bushman explained how influential they can be because they are able to engage the families in a way their male counterparts cannot. Their job as FET members is part soldier and part diplomat.
"Anytime we get a chance to interact with the locals, we're going to make a difference," said Buschman.
Buschman and Ray go on to add that while they have accomplished much up to now, they still have several months left before their deployment is through and hope to use that time to further influence Afghans, both female and male, throughout the district they operate out of. They realize the demands, as well as the difficulties, of their job but they fully embrace it because their job as FET members enables them to engage the Afghans and show them that they are here to help in a way the soldiers they go on patrols with cannot.
"The infantry doesn't see what we see," said Buschman. "They don't get to go inside the houses; they don't get to see how a family interacts with us. It's something you could take for granted ... but then you go and visit with the family and you're like 'this is why I'm doing this, to learn and to help them in any way we can.